So I keep seeing this everywhere, and have to have a quick mid-week rant about it. “Who works 40 hours anymore?” “The 40 hour work week is dead.” “9-5 is a myth.” I’m even getting outsource quotes that assume a 50 hour work week is normal. This keeps getting thrust down my throat by articles, billboards, on the radio, on the TV… and I know what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to get the overworked, underpaid sheeple out there to nod and commiserate together and hopefully purchase whatever product they’re selling that is being touted to make their poor, busy lives easier and more efficient. I get it.
However, I must ponder: what the fuck is the problem with having a life, an identity, and time outside of work? Is it horrible to put in a good quality 40 and then enjoy your life? Is it wrong to associate myself with adjectives such as athlete, wife, and friend as well as producer? Am I somehow less of a good person, a good employee, and a productive member of my company because I come in, get everything done with quality and quickness, and then leave work at a normal hour, after my 8 are up, and get on with my life? I have used VPN (connecting from my home computer to my work computer) once in 3 years here. I have checked my work email a handful of times from home, but I refuse to have it pushed to my cell phone so I see it all the time. I just prefer, whenever possible, to keep work and personal life separate.
Sure, I work extra hours when the job commands it. We work on the core hours philosophy – you come into work sometime between 8-10am and you put in your 8 hours (so the entire company is there from 10-5). It seems to be a very Austin thing. I’m typically a 9-5:30-er, or 10-6:30 if I work out in the morning (I take a very short lunch break since I usually bring mine, or if I don’t, I run out and back quickly). Some days I’ll have a meeting at 9am and then have to stay until 7pm because something broke and we have a release to get done. It happens. However, that’s the special exception.
I never used to be like that. When I was a wide-eyed, newbie designer, I was so thrilled to be able to do something I loved, I was at it every hour I could be. I stopped going out, I stopped playing games, I stopped doing anything but thinking about, talking about, and doing work. I could not imagine a life where I was not so immersed in this wonderful thing I lived and breathed. I spent 2 years that way.
Work time was awake time. I got up, slammed a lo-carb monster energy drink, went into work at 945 am, drank massive doses of caffeine to stay awake all day, and worked until I got dragged home by Zliten. Then after/while I consumed random fatty greasy takeout, I loaded up either my email, the game, a document, the design tool, or a combination of all 4. I’d continue until I was too tired/burnt/uninspired for the night, and then drink and smoke cigarettes and zone out in front of the TV (still probably mulling over conundrums from work that day) if I hadn’t worked to the point where my eyes were actually drooping and it was just bedtime (read: after 2-3am).
One day, late 2006, I woke up and realized that I couldn’t keep on that way. I was pouring my heart and soul into something that just didn’t have the funding and manpower to flourish. I also was tired, burnt out, frustrated, moderately mentally unwell, and had gained another 30 lbs on top of the 70-80 extra I was carrying around. I had gone from making an attempt at eating well and exercising, as misguided and short-lived and horrible vicious-cyclical as they were, from just saying, fuck it, I’m putting all my eggs in this basket and working to be the youngest, most successful, brightest lead designer/producer in the world and take this little game that could and turn it into the comeback story of the decade. But as much as I wanted it with all my being, no matter what I did, it was outside the locus of my control.
In 2007, I started instituting a policy for myself of the 40 hour work week. I came in at 945 (yeah, what a weird start time, I know…), made a huge deal about being efficient during my day, and left on time and did not work from home. I simply made sure that I scheduled myself and my team reasonably and didn’t do the “oh crap, this won’t fit this release but I really want it so I’m going to work extra to do it”. It was either cut it, or extend the date. Oddly enough, I found that I got so much more done during my 40 and was so much more productive and alert during the day because I was refreshed and well rested, I was able to get almost as much done as my 100 hour weeks, and I was picky about what I did and what fell by the wayside. Priorities, I know – what a concept. It was so successful that neither our customers nor management noticed or cared.
I can’t say that I had much of a life right away, due to the shell shock of not to be tied to work 24/7. I did start eating better, and exercising a little. It was cans and packages filled with way too much salt, and maybe burning 100-200 calories extra 3 times a week, but it was a start. I watched a lot of TV. I played some games. It also made me well aware that I needed a change. It’s harder to see your life, sanity, and health crumbling around you with those blinders on, but once you have time on your hands? It’s all you can do NOT to want to evolve. Could I have done it in San Diego? Sure. But it seemed like it was time for something drastic. Jumping in the proverbial deep end. I applied everywhere from Australia to Vancouver and the rest is history.
At first, once I moved to Austin and started my current job, I was hoping to have something to sink my teeth into as deeply as my past. It just wasn’t there. The oddity of having a fully staffed team, and the phenomenon of only having to do ONE person’s job made it so that I came in, did my work, and left on time (like I said before, unless I had to be there late to support others, which was definitely the exception to the rule). I sort of resented it for a few months and then it hit me – I really and truly could have a life here. Not only was I able to start having a social life with friends, but I could work on personal goals as well!
It really could have gone either way. At that crucial point in my life, if I would have found a job that was a lovely sinkhole of time like my last one, perhaps things would be different. I might be on this list. I also would probably be pushing 300 lbs and cried when I saw the picture with my profile. Marathon wouldn’t have been part of my vocabulary. I’ve made peace with that choice, and realize that it was absolutely the right one. So, I’ll take the extra few years I need to get on there and enjoy the fact that I can still tie my own shoes. I may not be terribly influential at 30 but perhaps by 35 you can say you knew me when…
So enough about me. As a manager, I occasionally have to ask employees to stay late, work the weekend, or otherwise cut into their personal lives. Our company ethos is to work 40 hard and go home, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Some things I’ve found:
-Blanketly keeping people for extra hours no matter their workload just makes people extend their workload in the hours they are required to work. As in people will generally get the same amount of tasks done in an 8 hour day as a 10 hour day unless REALLY, REALLY ridden hard.
-Giving people 10 hours of work and telling them they can go home once its done usually results in a really productive 8 hour work day.
-Productivity definitely goes down the next week after one weekend day worked (slightly), and definitely after both weekend days (significantly). It’s rarely useful to have employees working over the weekend both days unless absolutely necessary, and definitely ONLY if they have a specific task they need to finish up.
-People are much more willing to work extra hours if it’s to achieve a short term goal (aka, putting in crazy hours a few days before release) rather than a long term goal (working Saturdays for 2 months to hit a goal).
-People are much more willing to work extra hours if it’s communicated properly that their extra hours are changes/last minute additions/fixes/etc for the good of the project rather than scheduling mishaps, intentional overscheduling, or other mismanagement.
-People that have to monitor their emails, or do work from home outside of work hours aren’t QUITE as prone to burnout as if they have to be in the office extra hours, but it’s still there. Probably at about 50%.
And since I’m all about helping, here are some productivity tips (some which I have slacked on lately):
-Get a feel for how you naturally work and work with it. I’m a sprint worker – I finish tasks quickly but I also need mental breaks in between. I also do better when I spend the morning on mentally-light tasks and get to the deeper stuff late afternoon (when I’m more up against a deadline, I focus better). Some people work steadily all day and just need to eliminate the distractions I need.
-Make a to do list last thing each day of what’s up for tomorrow. If I don’t have one, I spend much more time unfocused and continually think “what do I need to be doing?” and I find that writing it out right before I leave takes about 10x less than when I come in that morning and have to remember.
-If you find you’re putting something off, really ask why. Sometimes you need time to mull a decision over, which is valid. Sometimes, you’re just putting off unpleasantness, which is bogus.
-If you’re feeling really unmotivated, make yourself dedicate the next (15 mins, hour, etc) to the task at hand and say no matter the progress, you can take a break after. 9 times out of 10, I’ll just end up finishing my task instead, since starting is the hardest part.
So now, I’d like to hear from you. Are you part of the “live to work” crowd and stay glued to your blackberry at all hours? Have you made a conscious decision to have a life and pursue personal goals and interests outside of your career? When do you resent and when don’t you mind putting in a little extra effort at work? How do you stay productive and motivated?